Review: Philistines

By london_charlotte Last edited 133 months ago
Review: Philistines

Considering Maxim Gorky’s life and writings, it is interesting that his plays are now being performed at the National Theatre. Always on the side of the little people, defender of the rights of every(wo)man, he spent his life commenting on Russian society and in particular the petit bourgeoisie. Presumably, choosing to stage this play is part of Nicholas Hytner’s valiant attempt to modernise the National Theatre, to make it a theatre of the nation, and not just of the privileged few. However, Philistines was Maxim Gorky’s first play, and it is a play with plenty to say written by a playwright not yet sure how to express it. Andrew Upton’s version suffers from the same problem.

There is an interesting post on the Guardian Arts Blog about actors being increasingly likely to forget about diction and enunciation on stage. Admittedly, sometimes we may not need to hear the words; sometimes the buzz of words mumbled and shouted over other words gives a play exactly what it needs. However, in a production like Philistines, which lives and breathes with its words, it is important that all can be heard. Let’s face it, not much else happens. It is then a problem when the first 15 minutes are unintelligible due to the actors’ lack of voice projection. That said, as soon as Phil Davis enter the stage there are no such hurdles to jump anymore. Davies uses his voice, uses his body – a small man, on a huge stage, in a vast set design and yet he comes across and beyond the stage. Of course, his role is the showiest of them all but he carries it well and shows his character to be less of a bully and more of an ignorant. Gorky’s characters are just like that – bullies who do not know that they are bullies, pestering their surroundings not for the joy of the act itself but for what they believe to be the good of the family. The rest of the cast does not stand out in any way. It is not that they are bad; they are just not particularly interesting.

Would this play not have been happier at the Cottesloe’s smaller, more intimate stage? Bunny Christie’s set design is impressive and beautiful, but it is somehow unnecessary. Yes, the point is that the house is partly to blame for the downfall of the characters, but a striking set could as easily be built at the smaller stage without swamping the actors.

Yet, it is not all bad. There is enjoyment to be had from the witty dialogue, and in true Gorky style the play almost descents into slapstick comedy – the unfairness of life, he seems to say, makes fools of us all. One could only wish that director Howard Davies had been more innovative in the staging of the play and one hopes the actors will speak up on stage and acknowledge that they are doing it for and with the audience, not in spite of it.

Philistines on the Lyttelton Stage at the National Theatre until 18 August. Buy tickets here.

Last Updated 25 May 2007

Edwin Lyons

Shouldn't you point out that you're reviewing the first (I guess) preview performance? Normally reviews are not written until after the press night...

Preview performances are cheap because they're rough around the edges.


You're right, Ed, I should have mentioned that. That said, I also review what I see on the night that I see it. Anyway, yes, it was a first night, so hopefully it will shape up to be something a little sharper.

Edwin Lyons

Charlotte: Of course, but previews are cheap for a reason. Its a perfectly useful and valid review, I just think its worth pointing out that its a preview being reviewed!


Charlotte has written absolute nonsense (and not written it very well either). I saw the play at a preview last week and loved every minute of it. It was moving and funny and sometimes both at the same time - the Holy Grail for dramaturgists. Charlotte is technically correct in saying that some of the lines can't be heard as the actors speak over each other, but nothing of any import is lost. The plot is simple and obvious, the character relationships are perfectly clear and every "gag" hits home. Perhaps Charlotte was too busy writing in her notebook to notice the reaction of the audience who, on the night that I was there, laughed all the way through and cheered at the curtain call.
It is also simply incredibly rude to review a preview - even the mainstream press have the decency to wait until press night. For Charlotte to post such a damning appraisal before giving the production a chance to find its feet is unprofessional (assuming she aspires to be a professional writer) and irresponsible.
When the REAL reviews appear in the papers, I suggest all Londonist readers check them out before deciding what to see this summer. I've a feeling Charlotte will be out on her own in disliking this play.